"The UK is a Christian country.” The Prime Minister’s Easter message sparked outrage among humanists and atheists. The Archbishop of Canterbury put more oil in the fire by publicly backing Mr Cameron’s position, saying that he finds critical remarks made by “atheist protesters baffling”. Not enough, various non-Christian religious communities acknowledged the views of the political and Anglican leadership. Instead of taking the Prime Minister’s remarks as an occasion to enter into dialogue at eye level with humanist representatives, the political leadership and the leadership of the Established Church stood together as if to prove a point - but to prove what?
The UK is a country with a Christian past, and historically speaking, the societal order remains strongly influenced by its Christian heritage, with the House of Bishops representing the Church of England in government and the Queen as the head of this Church, just to mention the most obvious. Not even atheists and humanists would reasonably doubt this. (Whether they are content with it, is another matter.) As churches, we have a choice of how to position ourselves: we can choose to join in with the polemic rhetoric of the political leadership, putting ourselves in the corner of self-defensiveness. Or we can chose the way of dialogue and acknowledge the constructive influence of non-religious world views on the course of society - by far our most challenging and closest dialogue partner. Atheism and Christianity are like two alienated siblings who grew up in the same household before the younger sibling went into opposition to the older sibling. All those who have an older brother or sister will be familiar with this feeling. Atheism is a recognised subject in Christian theology. In its modern form, Atheism developed in opposition to a predominately Christian Europe where the churches had an often traumatising influence on people’s life - in the name of God. Having been something between an agnostic and an atheist myself until my mid 20ies (and still acknowledging my past as part of my Christian faith), my reflections derive from personal experience and struggle. Fortunately, I don’t have to go into opposition with people holding non-religious world views anymore.
It was not surprising that non-Christian religious communities reacted positively to Mr Cameron’s remarks. Religions defend the same interests of a society founded on faith based morals. Undoubtedly, churches all over the world have been major contributors in easing the conflicts between different religions, and after an awfully violent and intolerant past, many countries in Europe achieved some sort of peaceful coexistence, some even a friendly cooperation and the granting of religious freedom. The UK is one of the most progressive nations in this respect and the churches deserve credit for this incredible journey. (Whether it has always happened out of theological conviction or to a great deal also out of political convenience remains a topic for critical reflection.)
In its ‘White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue’ from 2008, the Council of Europe (not to be mistaken for the Council of the European Union) says: “Those holding non-religious world views have an equal right to contribute, alongside religious representatives, to the debates on the moral foundations of society and to be engaged in forms of intercultural dialogue.” (p.23) When I was working for the Conference of European Churches and with the Council of Europe, I helped organising dialogue seminars with representatives from religious communities as well as humanist societies. These experiences made me realise how full of prejudice and fragile the dialogue between religious communities and secular world still is. The ‘Christian country’ rhetoric rightly points out that every culture has a religious dimension. But it is also true the other way around: there is always a cultural dimension to religion too, and secularism undoubtedly influences (former) Christian societies. What do we make of it?
There is more to this debate than just rhetoric, as ‘The Telegraph’ pointed out in an article on the 27th of April. The Prime Minister offered privileged access and public funds to Christian groups. “Many non-religious organisations helping domestic violence and sex trafficking victims will miss out”, Joan Smith, author of the article, warns. Many Christian organisations “have a traditional view of the sanctity of marriage, yet it is vital for the safety of women and children that they are helped to leave abusive relationships. […] A traditional Christian view of gender roles can’t just be wished away.” Secular charities might be better placed to offer help in specific areas than churches, and we would do better to acknowledge the importance of this work. Traumatic experiences with churches in the past (and up to today) remain in people’s unconscious perceptions over generations.
In an interview with The Telegraph, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams, makes a much needed distinction. No, we are not a Christian country as a nation of believers, he says. But yes, we are still much shaped by this vision of the world. He also says: “We have a younger generation now who know less about this legacy. People can rediscover Christianity with a certain freshness, because it’s not the ‘boring old stuff that we learnt at school’. There is a curiosity about Christianity.” This covers very much with my daily experience in my ministry in Covent Garden. We don’t need to panic or to feel threatened. We are part of a wonderfully diversified country which we should explore in a curious and non-judgemental manner, knowing that we have a lot to offer too. Self-defensiveness has never opened the door to dialogue. So let’s leave it behind us.